Hidden Worlds Among Us

A conversation with Håkan Kvarnström

AlgiKnit: We’re so curious to find out: who are you, where are you from, and what do you do?

Håkan Kvarnström: Born, raised, and living in Sweden, I have always had an interest in science and technology; more specifically: physics, biology, and math. I am fascinated by space and the universe, as well as the microbial worlds that are hidden to the naked eye. I bought my first microscope in my early teens and was immediately impressed by the beauty and complexity of the micro-world. It is a world hidden to most people. For many years, my interest and passions were elsewhere, but four years ago I decided to buy a new microscope to explore what the naked eye couldn’t see. I have learned a lot about microbiology and science during my efforts to capture and reveal microscopic life. Exploring hidden worlds is only a hobby of mine. My background is in computer science and information security, (in which I hold a PhD), and I currently do Risk Management at a large telecommunications company as a full-time job.

AlgiKnit: Your microscopy largely revolves around ecological life. Why is it so influential to you and what role have microorganisms and their ecology played in your life?

Many of the subjects I photograph have a fantastic story to tell, for example how they live, their role in the eco-system on earth, how they mate and reproduce, and how they survive in tough conditions.
— Håkan Kvarnström

Håkan Kvarnström: I think classic nature photography is missing out on capturing a huge part of nature. Nature photography today is mainly focused on plants and animals that we can see with the naked eye. Often, photographers are traveling across the world to remote destinations to get novel shots while seeking the extraordinary. What most people do not know is that there is stunning nature right in front of them. In every water puddle, in lakes and rivers close to you, lifeforms are there to explore; however, most are too small to be seen without a magnifying glass or a microscope. The marine environment is primarily occupied by microbes — mainly bacteria and protists, which account for 70% of total marine biomass. Yet, most underwater photographers focus on larger subjects to capture with their cameras. Bacterias, protists, and micro-algae are true wonders of nature because they show the intricate beauty of the environment. My passion and goal is to combine science and art through photomicrographs. Photomicrographs can have many different purposes. In research, they are often used to highlight certain features or characteristics of a specimen, for example, to prove or disprove research findings and theorems or in clinical work to diagnose a disease. The beauty of the image is secondary and no attempts are made to enhance its visual appearance. I want to produce quality pictures to allow others to see what is usually invisible. As a micro-photographer, I aim to capture the beauty of the micro-world and raise awareness through the universal power of the images I capture. Science provides the data necessary to explain issues and suggest solutions to the challenges in our world. Photography, though, symbolizes these issues aesthetically. Science is the brain, while photography is the heart. In my work, I try to combine both.

AlgiKnit: Considering microscopy is your hobby, you've managed to create a pretty comprehensive and prolific body of work. How do you balance your day job with your hobby of microscopy?

Håkan Kvarnström: I have a full time day job and need to use nights and weekends for microscopy. Time is precious and I have decided to work on my hobbies instead of watching TV or spending endless hours on social media reading funny posts — or more generally, consuming text and media instead of creating it — which is what too many people are doing today. I post many of my images on social media, mostly Instagram, but I always try to include an element of learning and education into my posts. Many of the subjects I photograph have a fantastic story to tell. For example, their role in the eco-system on earth, how they mate, reproduce, and survive tough conditions. I try to make my posts small bursts of learning, or micro-teachings in biology and science.  

AlgiKnit: The visuals you produce are quite stunning. What is your creative process for capturing a still, microscopic moment? And, additionally, what is the technical process like? Can you take us behind the scenes creating a photomicrograph?

Håkan Kvarnström: The creative process is quite boring in a way. Boring is perhaps not the right word, but it is rather tedious. My process involves analyzing drop after drop of water samples to search for something interesting to photograph. Photographing through a microscope is a bit like nature photography as a whole — you know approximately where to look for interesting animals, but you’re never sure if you will encounter anything that particular day. If you are lucky, though, you better have your gear and camera ready to capture the perfect shot. On a normal evening, when I go through water samples collected in a pond or lake, I can capture over a thousand images from only around 100 drops of water. One of the reason why so many images are needed is that the focus depth of a microscope objective is really poor. At high magnifications, only a few thousandths of a millimeter are in focus at the same time. If I want to capture relatively thick specimens, e.g. 30 micrometers wide, it may require 10-50 images to get a set of images where the various parts of the subject is in focus in at least one of the images. To create a final image, a focus stacking software is used to compile a new image out of the individual images, all the while carefully selecting all pixels in focus. Any movement of the subject throughout the stack of images will ruin or severely damage the final image. In most cases, the stacking does result in minor artifacts that needs retouching. I use Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop to give the images their final touch. In many cases, Lightroom is enough to adjust white balance, exposure and sharpness, etc., but In some cases, Photoshop is used to repair artifacts in the image and clean up dust speckles.

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AlgiKnit: Do you see yourself ever working with microscopy full-time? The separation of one's work and avocation is quite common, however, the thought of working regularly as a microbiologist must cross your mind. On another note, is there perhaps some, if any, intersectionality with your current work in Risk Management and microscopy? 

Håkan Kvarnström: In the past few decades, it has become harder and harder to make a living out of photography. Mobile phones with high quality cameras allow almost anyone to be a photographer. I cannot see this trend stopping. It is really difficult and challenging to pursue a career in photography nowadays and I am afraid that it wouldn’t be easy to make living from it. That said, I don’t really envision myself as a microbiologist either. My interest in microscopy originally came from a science and engineering perspective. I am a scientist by heart, with solid education in both science and engineering. It started out as an interest in technically advanced instruments and microscopes. These instruments can be used to explore the hidden art of nature. Over time, my interest has shifted from focusing on the technology behind microscopes to the subject I find and study. Still, shifting career paths to become a microbiologist full-time is highly unlikely. Microscopy will continue to be my passion and hobby, and hopefully I can contribute to raise an interest in microbiology, which I think is an important area of study that needs many perspectives to understand how we can use microbes, plankton and algae to help solve some of the key challenges of the future such as creating sustainable ways of living, supplying food for a growing population, and addressing carbon emissions and global warming. At the same time, we also need to make sure we protect natural resources. Research show that as much 80% of all the oxygen on earth is generated by marine plants and phytoplankton. The phytoplankton in the world oceans are also a major sink for carbon dioxide. Presently, oceans represent the largest active carbon sink on Earth, absorbing more than a quarter of the total carbon dioxide that humans put into the air. Skills in microbiology and ecology will be essential for generations to come.

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It is hard to find a connection between risk management, my current occupation, and microscopy. Perhaps, even, it is impossible. The lack of connection between my work and microscopy allow my brain to break its routine and focus on something completely different. Risk management, being theoretical and mostly a desktop exercise, is the opposite of microscopy, which is practical and involves field work. Perhaps something that they both have in common is an element of looking for the unknown. The big aspect of risk management is looking for and facing unknown risks. Risks that you fail to identify can hurt you, and they therefore can make you vulnerable. Risk managers spend a lot of effort looking into the unknown, and further, risks that may hit us, but cannot easily be found. Microscopy is similar in the sense, as you are trying to reveal the unknown. You make things visible that are usually invisible to the naked eye; seeking the unknown and hoping to find something interesting to explore. Robert Hook wrote in his seminal work “Micrographia” (1665): "By the help of Microscopes, there is nothing so small, as to escape our inquiry; hence there is a new visible World discovered to the understanding".

It will continue to be my passion... to understand how we can use microbes, plankton and algae to help solve some of the key challenges of the future such as creating sustainable ways of living, supplying food for a growing population, [and] addressing carbon emissions and global warming.
— Håkan Kvarnström

Photo Credit: Håkan Kvarnström

Photo Credit: Håkan Kvarnström

Håkan Kvarnström is a computer scientist who works with companies on information security and risk management. Microscopy, while only a hobby, is an enormous passion of his. Håkan currently resides in Sweden, and more of his work can be seen at instagram.com/micromundusphotography. For any direct inquiries on his work, those interested can reach Håkan at info@hakankvarnstrom.com.